Saturday, February 20, 2010

[Interview_3] Siobhan Logan

Siobhan Logan is a teacher, a trade unionist, a poet and a storyteller.

Her first published book, Firebridge to Skyshore: A Northern Lights Journey, (Original Plus, 2009) weaves together the science, myths, legends and folk stories behind the aurora borealis.

The book gives a unique and near magical perspective of life under the Northern Lights.

In this interview, Siobhan Logan talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

Well, I wrote as a child, of course. I remember making up plays for my siblings and friends in the school playground. My sister tells me I was always making things up for them. And bedtime stories. So oral storytelling probably came first. Then later, poems, stories, songs.

But I had fallen out of the habit of writing when I came back to it more seriously in my mid-thirties, realising I needed an alternative life to my busy teaching job and all the union/political activism. I needed that interior space of writing, the imagined landscape and voices other than my own muttering away in my head. And, for a few years, that's what it gave me.

I set about writing first a collection of short stories, to see if I could write and what about. Then I worked through two novels, and got to the point of sending the second one, Northlands, out to publishers. This featured the fairytale, The Snow Queen, in a modern narrative about a daughter whose Irish mother has gone missing.

I knew absolutely nothing about the industry but somehow I got an Irish independent publisher interested in reading more. It didn't come to anything. But at that point, I did a short course at the Writing School Leicester, and joined Leicester Writers' Club. This was a huge leap forward because I began to learn about both the craft of writing and how to engage with the industry of agents, publishers etc. Being part of this community of writers not only helped my sense of purpose but for the first time, gave me an audience for my writing. Which really does transform your writing, I think.

How would you describe the work you are doing?

These days I think of myself as a writer, rather than a poet or aspiring novelist. I often describe myself as a storyteller because performance has become very important in my work and I think storytelling underpins everything I do. Just like that child in the playground. And I'd like to try other forms too -- I definitely want to have a go at Radio plays when I can. And then a major part of my first book, Firebridge to Skyshore: A Northern Lights Journey, was the prose. I enjoyed researching and writing articles about the mythology and science of the Northern Lights and travelogue feature there too, along with the poems that I am most known for.

Audiences have been very diverse. This subject, the aurora borealis, has such a pull and brings in people who would never come to a traditional 'poetry event'. So far they've included astronomers, Women's Institute members, local radio listeners, museum visitors and primary school children, and I love that mix. But I've also published poetry and stories in the small press literary magazines. You could say I hop between page and stage.

Do you write everyday?

I do write everyday. I'm usually into my study by 6.30 am and that's my best time for writing. Before my head is filled with the clutter of the day, when I'm still close to that underworld of dream that writers tap into. I have a couple of hours of just being wrapped in the writing, 'rapt' even, when it's good.

The one day a week I don't teach mostly gets filled up with the 'business' of being a writer; e-mails, blogging, meeting people to plan new projects, rehearsals, networking, all of that. But I'm a great organiser so I like that multi-faceted aspect of the job. One minute I'm designing a flyer or webpage, the next I'm editing a poem or researching a topic. It's all creative.

Which concerns inform the writing you are doing at present?

In my book, Firebridge to Skyshore, I was exploring the myths and science behind the Northern Lights. This started as a commission where I was asked to write about the legends of the lights for the visual artist/ writer, Jackie Stanley.

Ancient stories have always fascinated me. They have a different shape, even a different morality, to our modern narratives, being often highly symbolic, probably because they've arisen out of an oral storytelling culture.

I was very drawn to studying the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Despite all the pressures to modernise, there is a remarkable continuity of culture in pockets of these northern countries. The Saamis, for instance, have lived in Northern Scandinavia since the end of the last Ice Age. The family of the reindeer herder I met still lived an existence very bound up with the annual migrations of mass reindeer herds. Traditionally, all of these Arctic peoples lived quite nomadic lives and I was interested to learn how they coped with colonisation, often quite repressive, by the nation-states which moved into their territories.

What would you say connects the various aspects of the work you are doing?

I find a big overlap emerging in my latest writing project. In this, I am looking at themes around migration, hoping to draw together memories of my own family coming over from Northern Ireland when I was six, with accounts from archaeology of the ancient migration of our species out of Africa across the continents, and also stories of modern migrants and refugees. People on the move, displaced, resilient, incredibly adaptive.

It's early days in this writing but already I'm finding myself reflecting on how essentially human all these activities are: walking, travelling, cooking, sewing, singing, storytelling, making marks in the landscape, rooting down in new places.

Place is often a starting-point for me, especially the North, so I was thrilled to visit the Arctic as part of my research for the Northern Lights book. But when I arrived in Tromso, North Norway, I found the snow and ice I'd imagined as a child, had been swept away by unseasonal heavy rains. In December 2007, they were experiencing more like summer temperatures. So the story of my journey included the immediate impact of global warming on this landscape. I think that's a subject I will certainly return to, especially as I am now teaming up with another writer/performer, Susan Richardson, to form the Polar Poets.

We plan to offer events, talks and workshops to audiences across the country, focusing on themes around the Arctic, including exploration, wildlife and climate change. I am really looking forward to this collaboration.

We are starting with science festivals and science is also a strong feature of my Northern Lights work. I find the scientific narrative of the aurora borealis every bit as wondrous as the legends of the northern tribes: the journey of sun-dust through the far reaches of space into our atmosphere to end in this collision of light and colour, the aurora.

Which were the most challenging aspects of the project?

One of the great challenges of the work was to find a language that could realise the physics involved whilst fusing that with the mythological response. My interest in the science of the skies was deepened when I met with physicists from the Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group, at the University of Leicester. This relationship began as one of sponsorship as they helped me to visit the Arctic, including an auroral research base in the mountains near Tromso. But it has led to some exciting collaborations.

Dr Darren Wright joined me for an evening about the aurora at London Science Museum's Dana Centre, where we moved between poetry, physics and the wonderful 3-D films of Brian McClave. This proved such a popular event that it was reprised in September 2008 and we are now bringing this Northern Lights Spectacular to the National Space Centre in Leicester February 2010.

I'm thrilled to appearing in this museum with its rockets and space exhibits. Space travel crept into the imagery of my auroral poems and is a theme I'd like to write more about.

Darren and I have also been booked to appear at the Ledbury Poetry Festival 2010, so the pairing of poetry and physics continues to appeal.

Appearing to a packed audience at the Science Museum has definitely been a highlight of my career as a performer. As has staging my own full-length show, Stories Drummed to Polar Skies, at the Richard Attenborough Centre in Leicester. This allowed me to realise my dream of giving the stories and poems a theatrical treatment where I could use music, lights, images and even costume, to bring these Arctic voices to life.

But, as a writer, the biggest achievement has been to find a publisher who has faith in the work and is prepared to invest hard-earned resources in it. Poetry, especially from a new writer, tends to rely on the small press.

How did you find a publisher for the book?

I was very lucky to stumble across Sam Smith of Original Plus. He published a number of my Northern Lights poems first in his magazine, The Journal, and then in the summer of 2009, brought out my collection of prose and poetry, Firebridge to Skyshore: A Northern Lights Journey.

From what I understand, it's unusual for me to have been able to have so much say in the book, from cover design to the inclusion of footnotes and illustrations. I was able to commission my sister, Dolores Logan, to produce these wonderful woodcuts and the distinctive monoprint on the cover.

And I know this combination of prose, poetry, travelogue and illustrations has made the book much more appealing to a readership that don't usually pick up poetry.

Original Plus is a very small press -- just Sam and his computer -- and it was always clear that the book would be sold largely through face-to-face contact with audiences at my events. That approach seems to be working well though I also need to promote it more online, too. The traditional bookshop route is a non-starter as they don't stock small-press poetry generally.

How have these experiences affected you as a writer?

All of that means that my understanding of what it is to be a writer has changed radically.

I need to cover the roles that an agent, a designer, a marketing person might usually perform. I'm learning the skills of a producer and stage manager and performer. And now I'm a blogger, regularly writing in this new genre too, and networking on-line. So the challenge is to wear all these hats and still keep the creative writing, in whatever form, at the heart of it.

Did I mention I also spend four and a half days a week on the 'day job' -- teaching English A-Levels at Leicester College? That's how I pay the bills and fund all the writing activities. But however hectic it gets sometimes, I consider myself very lucky indeed to have writing in my life. To have the space to be creative. And when I meet people at events who are excited by the Northern Lights or the poetry and the science, or I hear some feedback from a reader, then the circle is joined. That's what it's all about.

Related resources:

Related books:

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Related article:

Poetry, Football and the Spirits in the Sky [Interview_2], Conversations with Writers, June 4, 2007

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